The security of a symmetric cryptosystem is a function of two things: the strength of the algorithm and the length of the key. The former is more important, but the latter is easier to demonstrate.
Assume that the strength of the algorithm is perfect. This is extremely difficult to achieve in practice, but easy enough for this example. By perfect, I mean that there is no better way to break the cryptosystem other than trying every possible key in a brute-force attack.
To launch this attack, a cryptanalyst needs a small amount of ciphertext and the corresponding plaintext; a brute-force attack is a known-plaintext attack. For a block cipher, the cryptanalyst would need a block of ciphertext and corresponding plaintext: generally 64 bits. Getting this plaintext and ciphertext is easier than you might imagine. A cryptanalyst might get a copy of a plaintext message by some means and intercept the corresponding ciphertext. He may know something about the format of the ciphertext: For example, it is a WordPerfect file, it has a standard electronic-mail message header, it is a UNIX directory file, it is a TIFF image, or it is a standard record in a customer database. All of these formats have some predefined bytes. The cryptanalyst doesn't need much plaintext to launch this attack.
Calculating the complexity of a brute-force attack is easy. If the key is 8 bits long, there are 28, or 256, possible keys. Therefore, it will take 256 attempts ...